From time to time during my 55 years in journalism, I’ve written about a controversial issue that drew public protests and threats.
I’ve received some threats since moving back to Floyd for our final years in 2004.
One was stupid enough to make such a threat in front of a Floyd County deputy outside the Circuit Court room several years ago. Another threw a punch outside Blue Ridge Restaurant (now “cafe”) after claiming I had “defamed” Sarah Palin in a column.
I turned my head and his punch hit my shoulder. I hit him once and he went down, ending the disagreement.
Threats are part of the job of being a newspaperman. Most of the time, we laugh them off.
I’m not laughing today after taking 36 hours to digest the actions of a man who brought his shotgun, loaded with buckshot, into the newsroom of the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, MD, and killed four members of the historic paper’s staff.
Jarrod W. Ramos, 38, had a long-running gripe against the paper over a story about his conviction in a criminal harassment case where he made online threats to a former classmate. He filed, and lost, lawsuits against the paper and posted savage personal attacks against those who wrote the stories.
As a reporter, I’ve been sued twice for libel in my career. Judges threw both case out of court after finding no libel in what I wrote. I’ve been called many names in letters to editors and online over the years. A local Facebook post by a former candidate for office in Floyd County claimed I was a dangerous, brain-damaged man with a sordid past. I didn’t respond. Why bother?
While writing a twice-weekly column for The Telegraph in Alton, Illinois, during the 1970s, threats became part of the job. One reader threatened to burn our home down because of my column about the death of John Lennon. Another slashed the brake lines of my sports car.
In The New York Times, Robyn Tomlin, executive editor of the nearby News & Observer in Raleigh, notes that such threats are common.
“We’d joke about him showing up one day and shooting us,” she said while remembering a man who threatened and harassed employees of the paper, which had to put a protective order in place.
“Every newsroom I know of, regardless of size or geographical area, has a least a handful of people who regularly harass its journalist. Every one,” says Sand Francisco Chronicle editor Audrey Cooper in a Twitter tweet.
In a followup interview with The York Times, Cooper adds: “What the shooting crystallized was that maybe we’ve become inured.” She went back and looked at the file of threats that have come in over the years.
“I looked at my junk folder, and I thought, ‘Gosh, look at what I’ve forced myself not to look at,’” Cooper adds.
I’ve covered acts of violence and war in far-off places over the years but gave little thoughts about such dangers close to home.
“People don’t realize how dangerous it is for journalists around the world to cover their communities,” Joel Simon, the executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, told the Times.
“When you are criticized in local media, the people who see it are your neighbors and the people you associate with. And that can engender a lot of anger.”